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Ibrahim Shihadeh Interview



Everyone has a story to tell. But, let’s be honest, some stories are more interesting than others.

I recently had the great pleasure of sitting down with Ibrahim Shihadeh, a prominent property owner who has long been active in Rogers Park, and who is now a Director at RPBG. Ibrahim was born in 1948 in a small village in Palestine, not far from Jerusalem. The story of his journey to America is extraordinary. Even more extraordinary is what he did with the opportunities he found in his adopted country. For someone with a fascination (some would say fixation) on immigration, I can think of no better example of the benefits of immigration than by simply telling Ibrahim’s story. While it is true that he is a man of extraordinary drive and ability, it is also true that Ibrahim’s accomplishments in this country would have been much harder to replicate in his native land given the difficult circumstances of that part of the world, both then and now. In many ways, Ibrahim is the personification of the American Dream and is an inspiration to us all.

Ibrahim began his story when he was a young man still living on the West Bank, immediately after the Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and the Arab States. At the time, Ibrahim was just finishing high school. The war significantly altered the lives of many people. This was especially true on the West Bank. Ibrahim’s father, who had been working in Jordan, was unable to return to his village until several years after the war ended. This meant his wife and eight children had to fend for themselves. These events had a profound impact on Ibrahim who saw a dark future on the West Bank. He made up his mind that we was going to find a way to come to America.

He finally achieved this goal when he obtained a student visa to study at the now closed Central YMCA Community College in Chicago, a city he had never heard of and could not locate on a map.

With no money and few contacts, Ibrahim began his long journey with year-long stints in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Frankfort, Germany, more by circumstance than by choice. In both places, he managed to learn the language, find work and maintain his determination to keep pushing onward to America. He finally achieved this goal when he obtained a student visa to study at the now closed Central YMCA Community College in Chicago, a city he had never heard of and could not locate on a map. Thus, for the third time in two years, Ibrahim had to make a new start, learn a new language and build a new and hopefully permanent life in a strange land. But this time, Ibrahim resolved that we would not be moving again. He had reached his destination, and he was going to make the most of it.

Ibrahim describes his first few months in the city as extremely difficult, living hand-to-mouth with only a few dollars to his name and sharing a small, single room at the YMCA with a friend for $7.50/night. But things got better quickly. Ibrahim learned English and transferred to the University of Chicago Circle Campus (now UIC) where he eventually received a degree in Structural Engineering. He financed his education, rent and living expenses with a full-time job as a bellboy at the Congress Hotel, going to school from 8 am to 3 pm, and then working from 4 pm to midnight.

He found that he could earn three times as much doing renovation work as he could as an engineer.

There was just one problem. Ibrahim was in the United States on a student visa and was not legally allowed to work. This became an issue when he was caught by the immigration office and told to stop working or be deported.

Ever industrious, Ibrahim got the U of I to renew his student visa, and then negotiated with the immigration officer to allow him to work full-time to pay for his studies. This is not something that would probably have worked in the America of 2019. Fortunately, it worked for Ibrahim in the early 1970s. He finished his degree, eventually got a green card, and became an American citizen.

After graduation in 1975, Ibrahim got a summer job painting and doing other construction work. He found that he could earn three times as much doing renovation work as he could as an engineer. He was also living at 1306 W. Carmen, paying just $170/month for a two-bedroom apartment. He casually mentioned to his landlord that he would like to buy the building if he ever wanted to sell, and would pay him $100,000 for it. To his surprise, his landlord took him up on his offer (adding $2,000 to the price) and agreed to sell it. Ibrahim had no money for a down-payment, but found an investment partner to put in $30,000 for a 50% interest in the building, with bank financing for the rest.

This was the beginning of what has become for Ibrahim a truly illustrious career in real estate. Over the ensuing decades, Ibrahim would buy, renovate, convert to condominium or operate as apartments literally thousands of units. Today, Ibrahim’s portfolio extends from South Shore in Chicago to the North Shore suburbs and everything in between. Ibrahim also runs Creative Designs and maintains a large warehouse and corporate office at the corner of Ravenswood and Montrose.

This was the beginning of what has become for Ibrahim a truly illustrious career in real estate.

Ibrahim has long been active in the Rogers Park community and is currently working with Alderwoman Hadden to gain approval to develop an 89-unit apartment building and parking garage on Pratt between Sheridan and Lakewood. This vacant site was once the location of a Synagogue. Ibrahim also owns the Seville apartments just down the street at Lakewood.

Former Alderman Joe Moore downzoned the site years ago in an effort to exert more control over its eventual redevelopment. As a result, current zoning only allows the construction of four single-family houses. Such low density development makes little sense in a densely built up neighborhood that benefits from an excellent transportation infrastructure.

Preliminary conversations with current Alderwoman Maria Hadden about development options have been encouraging. Ibrahim wants to work with the Alderwoman as part of a team that will bring together different constituencies in the neighborhood to create something that will benefit everyone. A larger, multifamily building would bring new residents to Rogers Park, provide new affordable units, and offer relief to area residents competing for scarce street parking. Ibrahim believes this will better serve the neighborhood than a small-scale development with high-priced units.

Ibrahim is passionate about his business and proud of the strong bonds he has forged.

For all that he has achieved after so many years of struggle and hard work, Ibrahim is not resting on his laurels. Ibrahim is passionate about his business and proud of the strong bonds he has forged. These bonds are with his employees – some of whom have been with him for more than 30 years – his tenants, his business associates and his family. Ibrahim also believes in paying his good fortune forward by supporting many charities that are important to him. In particular, Ibrahim gives to organizations that help immigrants and that help better the lives of the people still struggling in the West Bank.

Ibrahim has three children, all of whom have been very successful, and two of whom now work in the family business. Ibrahim has helped five of his seven siblings come to the United States. Ibrahim lives in Wilmette and is Chicago’s biggest fan. He recognizes the extraordinary success he has had here and credits the city and its people for making it all possible. I have to say, Ibrahim has also done a lot for Chicago. The love, respect and admiration is certainly mutual. We are lucky to have a man of Ibrahim’s immense talents as part of our group. We welcome him as Director.

 

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